Some Context for my Concern with Government Corruption

April 18, 2014 | By | 7 Replies More

I realize that I probably look obsessed due to my many posts about government corruption. Perhaps that is because I saw it first-hand when I worked as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Missouri. That was back in the late ’80s, when William Webster served as Missouri Attorney General. My job required me to prosecute consumer fraud. That’s not quite how it worked, however. If the target was a significant contributor, I would be given lots of excuses that good cases were “not good cases.” I resisted for many months, documenting my cases as best I could and refusing to close good files–this behavior confused me at first, but then it became all too clear. Ultimately, several substantial cases against major contributors convinced Webster to transfer me out of of the Trade Offense Division. Because I refused his transfer, Webster fired me.

Little did I know that my experiences would become a focus for the 1992 Missouri Governor’s debate. The debate featured Mel Carnahan (the Democrat) versus William Webster (the Republican). Prior to this debate Webster had held a 20-point lead. The election occurred two weeks after this debate, and Webster conceded by 7:30 pm on election night. During the debate Carnahan blistered Webster with accusations much of the night. You’ll get a flavor for this well-deserved barrage if you watch the first 5 minutes–I was discussed beginning at the 3-minute mark. One other Assistant Attorney General also took a bold stand. After it became clear to him that the office was corrupt, Tom Glassberg resigned, immediately driving to Jefferson City to file ethics charges against Webster. Tom wrote a letter defending my reputation and his letter was published by the Post-Dispatch. It was letter I will never forget. A few sentences were read at the Governor’s Debate.

Those were intense times for me, of course. You can’t solve problems like this in a day. It requires immense patience and diplomacy, and bucking the system is risky. When you start resisting, you quickly see who has both a conscience and a backbone. When I see the constant stream of money for political favors stories, I’m disheartened but resolute. Corrupt money and power are formidable, but they can’t prevail where good people organize. I’m sure that my time as an AAG was formative, and it continues to drive me forward.

One last thought is a sad one for me, however. During the Webster scandal, the St. Louis Post Dispatch was an aggressive newspaper that did real investigative journalism thanks to excellent reporting by several reporters, including Terry Ganey. The Post-Dispatch no longer does significant investigative journalism, as is the case with most newspapers. Reporters across the country are being laid off by the hundreds, and this has led to a huge news vacuum. These days, we simply don’t know what is going on in most corners of our government. Many stories don’t see the light of day, and the mass media offer no local alternatives (local TV “news” tends to be a joke). Hence my non-stop interest in media reform through organization such as Free Press. Media Reform and Election Reform need to be fixed before we can meaningfully address any other issues. That has so sadly become apparent.

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Category: Blackouts, Campaign Finance Reform, Corporatocracy, Corruption, Journalism, Media, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    There were many interesting and frustrating side-stories. One of them involved the ethics committee that was supposed to investigate the many things to which I was a witness (I can’t say everything I know here because some of the information was obtained from Civil Investigative Demands). Even though Tom listed me as a witness, it took repeated prodding to get the ethics committee to even contact me. I drove across the state for what I had hoped to be an enthusiastic interview, but the interviewer was disinterested, frustrated that a complaint was even filed. He made that perfectly clear. The presumption, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, was that the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the State of Missouri was incapable of wrongdoing. So, yes, the ethics committee was not an interested audience to our concerns and it did not discipline Webster. Here’s another side story: After I was fired, I took the Amtrack to Jefferson City for the purpose of looking at records regarding contributions to Webster. I noticed a bizarre pattern of relatively huge contributions to Webster from some worker’s compensation lawyers. I reported these in person to Terry Gainey, the Post Dispatch reporter who handled the JC Bureau back then. He was quite interested and took my suggestion seriously that he should conduct a statistical analysis to compare Second Injury Fund settlement values of A) attorneys who contributed to Webster and B) those who didn’t. The results were stunning, and this led to a long series of articles concerning Webster’s abuse of the Second Injury Fund. In turn, this led to several arrests and convictions of those involved.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I’m posting some comments from a discussion ongoing at my Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/evieth (send a friend request if you like to tap into that):

    I had taken a major pay cut from private practice to work for the Attorney General’s Office. The day after I was fired I was hired by a St. Louis insurance defense law firm. I had advised the firm that I would be attempting to make a lot of noise and admire them for sticking with me under those circumstances. At the time I gave my freewheeling statement to the ethics investigator, I had no intention of leaving my job. I ended up staying with the AG’s office for another year, assuming that I would be fired every day I showed up for work. Backing up, the fact that Webster had stalled an investigation into “executive driven cars” (which were actually rental cars) was a huge source of friction between Webster and me. This involved (or SHOULD HAVE INVOLVED thousands of consumers and dozens of automobile dealerships). In the meantime, my STL Supervisor (Peter Lumaghi) kept sending me work to do–he recognized that I was working hard to do my job to prosecute consumer fraud. This was not the case with Webster himself or his Jefferson City executive staff–I’m so tempted to name several names here . . . The last straw was that I was assigned another scam against a dealership that was so simple that an 5 year old could understand it. A STL auto dealership offered to sell consumer’s used cars on consignment. They sold many such cars, then lied that they received less money than they did. Sounds like someone should go to prison, right? I was told that this was not a strong case by Webster’s higher ups. I was also told that I should be concerned because the attorney who responded to my initial request for information from the dealership “was the treasurer for the Missouri Republican Party.” I didn’t give a shit, and this pissed off Webster’s higher ups even more. That’s when I was told that I was “incorrigible” and “disgruntled.” My transfer to the Division of Mental Health showed up shortly thereafter, I refused and I was fired. It helped me greatly that I always thought, every day, that I was going to be fired. It also inspired me that the Post-Dispatch took its job seriously. And I can never say enough good things about Tom Glassberg, who repeatedly offered clear-headed advice and left a job he loved because it would require moral compromise to stay.

  3. Wow, such a compelling story. I appreciate your sharing it. That’s gotta feel good that you helped ruin Webster’s gubernatorial aspirations. I love his Wikipedia description: “disgraced former American politician, and convicted felon, from Missouri.”

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mike: I hadn’t seen that he had a Wikipedia entry. Thanks for your comment. It was quite an adventure. I am better for having gone through it, but I lost a job that I really enjoyed.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    One of the Post-Dispath reporters who covered Webster, Terry Ganey made my day with this comment on Facebook: “Hi Erich, You and Tom Glassberg were courageous attorneys who at great personal risk spoke truth to power, and who played a major role in helping to expose corruption in state government. And even now, more than twenty years later, keep in mind that truth endures, truth will not go way. Truth will not pass or change. The service of humanity through the medium of truth is something worthy of your best years, your finest talents, your most dedicated efforts.”

    My response:

    Terry – Writing about this episode, even this informal writing on FB, has been cathartic. I played my cards close to the vest back then, but now it’s so very different given that the players have moved on. As I mentioned at the beginning of this thread, this experience was formative for me. It taught me to trust good reporters, even though the initial story exposing the “executive car” fraud was released while I was still working for the AG. That led to some awkward moments. And then I somehow hung on for almost a year more, even though I was a whistle-blower. There was so much that was so surreal about that case. For instance, the PD pummeled Webster with new revelations a couple times per week, it seemed, for months, and I was still working at the Division, but mostly kept out of the loop by then. Webster’s head of the Trade Offense Division at the time eventually admitted that the dealers were committing a massive fraud, but only wanted to settle the 3 cases in front of us, proposing that we let dozens of other dealerships go unpunished. There were many bittersweet moments too, such as the way I was fired. My local boss came in to tell me that Webster fired me, adding, “Now I’m going to have to hire someone who won’t do as good a job as you.” I saw my law clerk crying a few minutes later. Some people at the office were afraid to talk with me, even when it was announced that my only remaining job was to clean out my desk and be gone by the end of the day. I have great respect for whistle-blowers and news providers that stick their necks out, and it is largely because I experienced this first hand and I know how difficult it can be.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    From Karen Elshout: “I love this exchange twenty years later between a reporter and his source. Hats off to those who speak truth to power!!!”

    My response: “Thanks for sharing, Karen. It seemed less like news and more like history after 20 years, so I decided to open up about this adventure. Terry’s kind word were wonderful to read, of course.”

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